In “China inflation may hit 6 pct, no end to tightening -paper“, Reuters reports that the official China Securities Journal insists fighting inflation is the number one job for monetary authorities. Given a consumer price index hitting 32-month highs in March and likely to rise as high as 6% this year, China will continue to hike rates to thwart these inflationary pressures.
Yesterday, China’s central bank increased interest rates for a fourth time in six months.
In “China says cannot lower guard against inflation“, Reuters reports that “China’s Premier Wen Jiabao said on Saturday inflation was affecting social stability, and taming it was a top priority for this year…The government is aiming for annual average inflation of 4 percent in 2011, higher than the 3.3 percent rise in consumer prices last year.”
The article notes several measures Chinese authorities are taking to curb inflation, everything from increasing food supplies, reducing transportation costs, and controlling the money supply and bank lending. These measures seem to be working, but the Chinese are not declaring victory just yet…
Suddenly, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan knows inflation. In fact, he now sees inflation as a real danger. Greenspan discussed a variety of economic topics with a crew from CNBC. I was quite intrigued, and VERY surprised, at his commentary on inflation and even gold. It is as if retirement has brought on an inflationary epiphany. Stepping away from the printing presses of currency has delivered some remarkable clarity…somehow.
Here are some highlights that were of most interest to me (bold emphasis mine):
- Inflation premiums are building up in the “out years”, but none of these indicators (TIPS, out year treasury yields) will tell you when inflation is about to take hold, and certainly not when the bond markets are going to move.
- In 1979, 10-year treasuries were yielding 9% and all the indicators told prognosticators that yields had peaked because the U.S. was not an inflationary economy – over the next 4-5 months, yields went up 400 basis points.
- Greenspan has always been somewhat skeptical of the output gap – the stagflation of the 1970s proved that “it is not an infallible indicator.”
- The general assumption about measures of core inflation is that food and energy fluctuate, but have no trend. That is incorrect.
- Rising incomes have shifted diets toward more protein, requiring more wheat crops while at the same time we are running out of arable land. This will create a long-term uptrend in food prices.
- Concerns over the security of oil supplies will also put oil prices on an upward trend.
- Over the counter derivatives (futures) have encouraged more storage of oil above ground in developed nations, providing a buffer. Otherwise, oil would be even higher right now.
Greenspan’s commentary on gold perhaps hearkened back to his pre-Fed days when he wrote “Gold and Economic Freedom” back in 1966. The quotes below come from CNBC’s transcript of the larger interview. He made these comments after pointing out that both the euro and the U.S. dollar are flawed fiat currencies (imagine what could have happened in currency markets if Greenspan made such an observation while he was Chairman!).
“What the price of gold is saying, is that there elements within the marketplace that feel very uncomfortable with respect to what is going on generally, and its not an accident that you’re finding that central banks are going in to buy gold and one of the reasons is gold is historically one of the rare media of exchange that doesn’t require any collateral or backing, counter signatures, gold is universally acceptable as a means of payment.”
“I’m not saying we can or should go back on the gold standard, that would be extremely difficult, and it would require such cast changes that this society has made no indication that it wants to do that, but I do think to get a sense of the stability of the system, watching the price of gold is not too bad.”
The overall discussion begged the obvious questions on monetary policy. It is not clear to me whether Greenspan’s characterization of existing inflationary pressures compels any changes, especially given these underlying forces are out of the Fed’s control.
Disclosure: author is long TIP and TBT
Great piece from Fidelity considering the implications of the inflationary boom that seems to be driving stocks skyward (“Is this bull unstoppable? The key is how—and when—the Fed exits its historic stimulus program.”)
I highly recommend reading the article as it contains excellent charts showing the relationships amongst monetary policy, earnings, stock prices, and commodity prices.
Here are some key quotes:
“I believe it is becoming increasingly clear that stocks are following the playbook of an inflationary boom. The Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) January 2011 manufacturing survey is the highest in years, earnings are strong, and now money supply growth is picking up steam. Ultimately, I fear this inflationary boom scenario may be followed by an inflationary bust (or stagflation), but perhaps that day is farther away than I have been anticipating.”
“Food and energy prices have moved sharply higher in recent months and appear to be trending higher rather than mean-reverting. If this remains the case, I believe the Fed could misstep by focusing on core inflation rather than the perhaps more relevant headline inflation. After all, for most of the world, food and energy inflation are critical matters.”
“How long can this go on before the “rubber band snaps,” either by commodities plunging in a deflationary crash (like in 2008) or the Fed being forced (by the bond market) to tighten and thereby undermine the recovery? Or what if the Fed does nothing and the dollar falls further and sends inflationary expectations skyward?”
China’s scramble to battle inflation continues. On Saturday, Christmas Day in many parts of the world, the People’s Bank of China raised interest rates 25 basis points. The benchmark one-year lending rate is now 5.81%, and the one-year deposit rate is set to 2.75%. More details and analyst commentary on Bloomberg: “China Increases Interest Rates to Curb Its Fastest Inflation in Two Years.”
We have chronicled on these pages China’s struggles with inflation. It appears the pressures are only getting worse. Bloomberg reports “China Inflation May Be Too Hot for Controls Amid Cash Glut“:
“Standing near his 12-table noodle shop on Beijing’s Yonghegong Avenue, owner Liu Heliang says meat and vegetable prices have climbed 10 percent in a year and staff wages are up 40 percent.”
“Premier Wen Jiabao’s cabinet last week announced it will sell grain, cooking-oil and sugar reserves, ordered an end to tolls on trucks carrying produce and threatened price controls to rein in a 10 percent inflation rate for food. Because the measures would do nothing to counter the 54 percent surge in money supply over the past two years, the risk is they will prove insufficient to cope with the challenge.”
It seems consumption is declining in the wake of this inflation, but not fast enough to cool prices down. The Chinese government is worrying even more about what will happen to the many millions of poor people who may no longer be able to afford the little food that they currently consume.
(A version of this post also appears on ONE-TWENTY TWO)
The Federal Reserve essentially warned us in its most recent written testimony to the House of Representatives that part of its exit strategy from emergency monetary measures is to increase the spread between the funds rate and the discount rate. This evening, the Fed did just that. In a surprise announcement, the Fed increased the discount rate from 1/2 percent to 3/4 percent and accordingly widened the spread with the funds rate.
Once again, the Federal Reserve reassured us this action does not change monetary policy:
“The modifications are not expected to lead to tighter financial conditions for households and businesses and do not signal any change in the outlook for the economy or for monetary policy, which remains about as it was at the January meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC).”
This caveat probably means we should still not expect an increase in the funds rate until November/December at the earliest. However, I think the Fed’s surprise delivery of this message puts us all on notice and forces an attitude adjustment. The Fed is serious about normalizing monetary policy and moving away from emergency measures.
The Fed’s timing is particularly odd given options expire tomorrow. Typically, such timing is executed to squeeze shorts and force a market rally. There could be a lot of churn as market participants rush to adjust in the middle of dealing with expiring options. Already, the dollar has rallied sharply in the past several hours.